Reflecting on the first two years on the tenure-track: Part II
This post is a continuation of my previous post on the lessons that I have learned from being a tenure-track Assistant Professor for two years at an R1 research university. In this post, I discuss research, service, and external grant funding. My hope is that this post may be useful for new faculty who are just starting out on the tenure-track or for aspiring tenure-track faculty at research-oriented universities.
- Make sure to work on research and/or write nearly every day. If you are at a research university, then it is important to recognize that research and teaching will likely be the most important parts of your tenure dossier. In addition, exceptional teaching and service will generally not be able to compensate for a “fair” or “poor” research record. Different universities will have different expectations about what constitutes a good research record, but it is definitely safer to try to exceed the minimum expectations when it comes to research. To this end, you have to make sure that you are devoting enough time to research.
- Try to strike the right balance between quality and quantity. Most departments do weigh quality. So if you are able to publish a few articles in the most prestigious outlets, then it is very likely that these papers get weighted more heavily in your tenure and promotion dossier. Having a few papers in the most prestigious outlets will universally be viewed more favorably than having a prolific publication record in mid-tier or low-tier outlets.
At the same time, junior faculty should also keep quantity in mind (though certainly not at the expense of quality). I know people who have been denied tenure because they only had a single Science/Nature/Annals of Statistics/etc. publication in the span of four years. Although there is definitely a premium for very prestigious journals, you typically cannot get away with only one or two publications, even if they appear in the most top-tier journals. On the flip side, I also know people who have been denied tenure because they had too many publications in outlets that were considered to be mid-tier or low-tier or because their publications were mainly from interdisciplinary collaborations, rather than first-author or last-author.
If you are a tenure-track faculty at an R1 university, then you need to regularly have first-author publications and/or last-author publications where one of your supervisees is the first author (as you progress further in your career, most or all of your papers will fall in the latter category). Some of these papers can be review papers, and not all of the papers need to be in “high-ranking” outlets. However, you might need to have a few that are in “high-ranking” places. Note that “high-ranking” does not necessarily mean the most prestigious journals or conferences in your field, but it does mean that the outlet has to be considered a “premier” outlet in some sense.
- Find out what your department considers “top-tier” journals and conferences. As I mentioned in the previous point, your department might like you to have at least a few articles in venues that are considered “top-tier” or “high-ranking” in your specific research area. I am not necessarily talking about the three or four most prestigious journals in your field, but a longer list of journals and conferences that are considered to be “high-ranking.” For example, the London School of Economics (LSE) maintains departmental journal lists (list from 2020-2021) about what LSE judges to be “high-ranking” journals.
Note that your department may not maintain an ‘official’ list. However, you can probably still get a rough idea or an “unofficial” list of what the department considers to be “high-ranking” venues if you ask someone.
- Say “yes” to as many invitations to speak at colloquia and conferences as possible. Unless you have extenuating circumstances that prevent you from traveling (there are certainly legitimate reasons not to!), I would generally say that it is a good idea to accept invitations to give talks at department seminars and conferences. In your tenure evaluation, most research universities will solicit external letters of recommendation from full professors who are considered experts in your research area. So it’s generally in your best interest to make yourself as widely known outside your department as possible. Plus, this is a great way to get to meet other researchers and foster potential collaborations.
Service is also a very important part of the job, but for junior faculty at research universities, I would definitely encourage them to “selfishly” guard their time. I don’t mean that you should ‘skimp’ on service, but definitely make research and teaching a higher priority. At research universities, most departments do try to shield their junior faculty from taking on too much service. But you should still be cautious to make sure that research and teaching are prioritized above all else. As you advance in your academic career, you will have more service and administrative responsibilities. But very early on, service should be the “cherry on top” of a high-quality research and teaching record.
- Keep in mind that outstanding service generally can not make up for a poor teaching record or a middling research record. Just because your department tries to keep your service load “light” does not mean that you won’t often get service requests from different individuals. Even if it is “only one” request, if you get many of these requests from multiple individuals, then the time investment might add up. For this reason, I do advise junior faculty to be cautious about their time and try not to put too much extra stuff on their plate.
- It is a very good idea for junior faculty to do one major piece of service to their department each year. This could be serving on a departmental committee, such as the Graduate Admissions Committee, the Qualifying Exam committee, or the Hiring Committee. It could also be organizing the departmental colloquium.
I think that most junior faculty find these types of service to be quite positive experiences, as they do help Assistant Professors to integrate into the department and learn about its culture and inner workings. Doing one major piece of service each year also fulfills the requirement of acceptable service to your home department. At the same time, if you feel you are being given too much service that it is taking time away from research and teaching, then don’t be afraid to speak to the Department Chair. He or she will try to remedy this situation and reduce the service load.
- You do need to do service to the university and the greater community, but don’t be afraid to be “choosy” about the service tasks you decide to undertake. For me personally, I typically always agree to serve as a committee member for a PhD dissertation. This type of service is valuable to both me and to others at the university.
In addition to serving on PhD thesis committees, I have done a few other service projects here and there, such as reviewing applications and interviewing prospective students for the Top Scholars program at my university. I also served as a lunch ambassador for the New Faculty Orientation this year. It’s important to do some service, but you can be selective about what you do, and if you really are too busy, you can politely decline. If you do decline, it’s always best to suggest alternatives, e.g. people who may be able to take your place in completing the task.
First, I would make sure to find out exactly what the requirements for tenure are with respect to external grants. In some departments (e.g. lab sciences), it is essential to actually get grants in order to keep your lab running. In other fields, the requirement may just be that you regularly seek (i.e. apply for) external grants. Even if your department does not require you to get external funding, there are many benefits to having grant money, not least of all: summer salary, paying for your graduate students to be full-time Research Assistants, scholarly visits to other institutions, more computer equipment, etc. All of these things are beneficial to your research, so if you are at an R1, then it is a good idea to at least regularly apply for external grants.
With regard to grant funding, I have a few suggestions as well:
- Apply for grants and start learning the grant process early. One of the mistakes I made was not hitting the ground early enough. My first year was a “pandemic” year (2020-2021), so I was a bit ‘disoriented’ to say the least (i.e. I was not on campus at all during this year, so I did not get to meet with anyone in-person who could walk me through the process). There was a lot to navigate, to say the least. Nevertheless, I still probably could have found the resources that I needed to put together a grant proposal during the height of the pandemic. Even if my grant submissions had not been successful, I could have learned a lot from the experience, so I could hopefully succeed the second (or third) time around.
The Chair of my department has also indicated that it can take at least six months to write a competitive grant. Given the amount of effort required, it is definitely a good idea to start early.
- Volunteer to serve on a grant panel. This past spring, I served on the NSF’s Launching Early-Career Academic Pathways in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (LEAPS-MPS) panel, where I reviewed grant proposals and deliberated on them with other panel members. I learned a lot about the entire process from the “the other side,” i.e. how a grant panel determines which grants are “highly competitive” vs. “competitive” or “not competitive.”
By serving on a panel (as an aside, you do get compensated for this from the funding agency), you can learn how to better consider things from the reviewers’ and panelists’ point of view and tailor your grants accordingly. For example, on the panel that I sat on, a great deal of emphasis was placed on how convincingly the grant proposal addressed the specific LEAPS-MPS solicitation criteria. In addition, I was able to gain crucial insight into what exactly “stood out” about grants that were rated as “Highly competitive” by a panel (e.g. in terms of novelty of the proposed research, clarity of the specific aims and structure of the proposal, broader impacts, etc.).
- If your university offers a grant-writing mentorship program for junior faculty, then sign up to participate in it. This year, I am taking part in a nine-month mentorship program offered by the Office of the Vice President for Research. The aim of this mentorship program (which consists of workshops, intensive mentoring, and presentation coaching) is to equip junior and early-career faculty with the skills needed to develop competitive grant proposals. At the end of the nine months, each participant will have put together a proposal to submit to either the NSF or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Putting together competitive grant proposals is a skill that takes a lot of time to develop, but these sorts of mentorship programs can help you to round the learning curve a bit faster.
- Get examples of successful grant proposals from your colleagues and ask them to help you with your own proposals. I have several examples of grant proposals that were successfully funded by the NIH or the NSF. These sample grants have been extremely helpful in knowing how I should structure the project description and what things make up a “competitive” grant.
Senior faculty are also likely to be very experienced with the grant proposal process, and they would be happy to offer their guidance. They can help to review your project summary, suggest ways to enhance your overall proposal, how to write an effective rebuttal (if resubmission is allowed), etc. So definitely ask your colleagues to help guide you through the process.
- Make sure to budget carefully. I received an internal ASPIRE-I grant from my university, and I am currently the Principal Investigator (PI) on an NSF grant. My entire ASPIRE-I grant was devoted solely to supporting one PhD student as a Research Assistant (RA) for one semester, and a good chunk of the NSF grant is spent supporting another PhD student as an RA for two semesters. When you support a Research Assistant, you need to not only pay their graduate student stipend but also their tuition, health insurance, fringe benefits, etc. This is only one aspect of the entire budget too, so plan accordingly.
Fortunately, you don’t need to do the budget planning entirely by yourself! Your college should have a Grants Operations or a Grants Administration Office that will help you plan everything (compensation for yourself and RA’s, equipment, travel, etc.) meticulously.